'The Wrong Man': Theater Review

The Wrong Man Production Still - Publicity - H 2019
Matthew Murphy
Henry shines, if the material doesn't.

Thomas Kail directs three-time Tony nominee Joshua Henry in the world-premiere musical written by 2016 BMI Pop Songwriter of the Year Ross Golan about a man framed for a murder he didn't commit.

The good news is that three-time Tony nominated performer Joshua Henry is currently delivering a wonderful concert in the intimate confines of an off-Broadway theater. The bad news is that the show he's in, The Wrong Man, is supposed to be musical theater.

The musical, receiving its world premiere with MCC Theater, is the brainchild of composer Ross Golan, who wrote the book, music and lyrics. Golan is no slouch in the music department, having won the 2016 BMI Pop Songwriter of the Year award and written songs for the likes of Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Keith Urban, One Direction, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Pink and other pop stars too numerous to mention. This venture clearly represents a labor of love for the composer, who has been developing the material for more than 10 years and has performed a version of it as a one-man show. A concept album was released this summer, and an animated film version premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. You can't say he isn't fully exploiting the property.

Unfortunately, in its current form, The Wrong Man doesn't seem worth all the effort. Completely sung-through, it has a bare-bones plot revolving around Duran (Henry), a hapless sad-sack living in Reno who makes the mistake of falling in love with, and impregnating, a married woman, Mariana (Ciara Renée, The CW's Legends of Tomorrow). The problem is that Mariana's husband, a convicted criminal, is the jealous type. Identified in not-too-subtle fashion only as "Man in Black" (Ryan Vasquez), he stabs Mariana to death and kills a stranger in an alley, then frames Duran for the crime by planting the murder weapon on him. Duran is promptly arrested and, well, let's just say things don't end happily.

The threadbare story would prove perfectly serviceable for a vintage film noir. But here, told entirely through song, it scarcely registers. One has to struggle to concentrate on the doggerel lyrics to make sense of what's going on, and character development is virtually non-existent. It doesn't help that the songs, which incorporate pop, R&B, hip-hop and rap, virtually all sound the same. They're catchy enough, but they prove so repetitive and lacking in individuality that you can feel your brain shutting off while listening.

The music, at least, is more impressive than the lyrics, which don't exactly recall Sondheim in sophistication. For instance, there's Duran's lament, "Is the wrong man / Singing this song, man / The wrong man / The wrong man's singing this song." Or Mariana's "Some good people, good people do bad things, bad things / But that's not you, that's not you / Some good people, good people do bad things, bad things / But that's not you / I know 'cause I've seen underneath." It's also hard not to think that the only reason the story takes place in Reno, Nevada, is to provide the opportunity for Duran to borrow from Johnny Cash and sing, "It wasn't me who shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die."

The Wrong Man represents a reunion between Hamilton director Thomas Kail and arranger-orchestrator Alex Lacamoire (Henry also appeared in the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, playing Aaron Burr in Chicago and on tour). There are more than a few similarities between this show and that groundbreaking hit, from the musical styles to the minimalist scenery, here consisting of little more than constantly rearranged chairs and benches. It also proves reminiscent of the 2012 off-Broadway musical Murder Ballad, for obvious reasons, but that show, although not exactly thematically deep itself, had a compelling vibrancy and sexiness that The Wrong Man desperately lacks.

To compensate for the narrative skimpiness, the production features an ensemble of hard-bodied young performers, clad in tight-fitting, revealing clothing in various shades of gray, constantly performing the energetic choreography of Travis Wall. Like Golan, Wall has impressive pop credentials, being a two-time Emmy winner for Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, with other credits that include Dancing With the Stars and numerous award shows. But like the music, the sheer relentlessness of the athletic, interpretive dancing proves wearying, making you long for the moments when the performers settle down for a spell. The varying moods of the piece are signaled by LED lights on the walls of the theater that shift colors so often you begin to feel like you're taking a traffic test.

The evening certainly provides a powerful showcase for Henry, who anchors the proceedings with his imposing physicality and booming yet emotive vocals. The actor — who's previously wowed New York audiences with his work in such musicals as The Scottsboro Boys, Violet and Carousel, among others — is so good you're almost willing to overlook the show's flaws. And Vasquez (another Hamilton veteran), who plays the role of Duran at certain performances, makes for a suitably intense villain. Unfortunately, their hard-working efforts aren't enough to make The Wrong Man feel like more than a dramatically inert song cycle.

Venue: The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, New York
Cast: Anoop Desai, Tilly Evans-Krueger, Joshua Henry, Malik Kitchen, Libby Lloyd, Ciara Renée, Kyle Robinson, Debbie Christine Tjong, Ryan Vasquez
Book, music, lyrics: Ross Golan
Director: Thomas Kail
Music supervision, arrangements, orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire
Choreographer: Travis Wall
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designers: Jennifer Moeller, Kristin Isola
Lighting designer: Betsy Adams
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Presented by MCC Theater